Putting a stop to office gossip

About a year ago, the human resources department at the Brand Consultancy Inc. in Washington came up with a rule: no more office gossip.

Er, um, make that no more "anaconda."

The company likens gossip to an anaconda, because, well, "what it does is wraps itself around people and literally sucks the wind out of them," says Vickie Hann, director of human resources.

Soon after she came up with the gossip-as-anaconda simile, the office was bedecked with Beanie Baby snakes, posters saying "No Anacondas!" and even a skit put on by Ms. Hann and several colleagues for new recruits and training sessions, illustrating what happens to a workplace when gossip (or an anaconda) runs rampant.

Hann swears it works.

"You hear people joking around here: 'Uh-oh! Someone's starting a rumor! No anacondas here!' "

There's no question gossip can be a dangerous thing. It can hurt careers and simply make people feel bad. It can bring down morale and make some question the maturity level of an office.

But offered or taken in the right way, it can also inform.

Blake Evans, a senior strategist and consultant at the Brand Consultancy, says he has seen instances in the past where gossip didn't seem so anaconda-like.

"It can buffer the reaction of a supervisor," he says. For instance, when a manager gets fed up with a co-worker of yours who doesn't seem to be pulling her weight this week, it's sometimes helpful for you to mention why that person has been late to work or early to leave – if you think the boss is going to be sympathetic and if, especially, your co-worker won't mind that you spread some "gossip."

Mr. Evans has different views on gossip depending on the subject matter and how it is handled. He believes that what a lot of people call gossip, he calls intelligence. But it depends on what this "intelligence" is.

When, for instance, a co-worker gives him a bit of information he or she heard about a competitor, it's intelligence. When it's an employee coming to him to talk about someone else at the organization, it's quibbling, or unnecessary gossip.

"Yes, it can be used to benefit," he says of some kinds of gossip. But when it comes to worker-on-worker gossip? "I have a personal problem with it myself, from an ethics point of view. I ignore a lot of it," he says. Or he puts it back on the gossiper by asking, "What are you going to do about it?"

Sometimes, gossip is simply a form of entertainment. In the case of at least one senator, according to a former aide of his, gossip is the thing that keeps life in the office interesting. "He has the dirt on everyone," she says. In fact, the person who replaced her called recently to ask where the senator got all of his inside information, most of which is just innocent chatter. More than anything, the new aide was just amazed that he found out as much as he did.

As long as the gossip in the senator's office remained relatively innocent – which this woman said it did – it made for a sort of fun atmosphere. Gossip usually consisted of who was dating whom, or who might be looking for a new job (common practice on the Hill, so rarely a career-buster if the senator found out).

However, when one is a direct victim of not-so-lighthearted prattle, the lenient attitude toward office gossip can fade. Kim Lysik Di Santi, founder of Total Strategy, a career-coaching firm in Reston, Va., is an antigossip by both necessity (her profession demands it – she's a counselor) and personal conviction.

Before she started her own company, she had a boss with whom she didn't get along. It was fairly apparent to others in the organization, she says.

"I became, for the first time in my professional life, the brunt of gossip. People who never even talked to me talked about me," she says. "That cured me from gossip for life."

She explains to clients today – many of whom are small-business owners – that gossip can lose managers and business owners the respect of their employees.

"They have to be in a position of authority. People are hungry for leaders today," she says. "Employees want to believe in and follow decent people."

If a manager spews gossip as a way of venting, or even information-gathering, an employee can easily come to question that person's authority. That employee also might question what the boss is saying about him or her.

What managers should do, she says, is offer up a lot of information to employees. "[That] person is in the seat of being able to direct things," she says. Hold town meetings, let people know what's going on in an organization. Send out e-mails when appropriate.

Bruce Pomerantz, a psychoanalyst in Chevy Chase, Md., says office gossip clearly can lead to anxiety among employees. Not only does office gossip cause distraction from the business focus, he says, it can create divisiveness. "It promotes animosity between the members, and for those targeted, it can ... increase job stress," he says.

It seems everyone has a story about how office gossip changed his or her life. Or at least made it miserable.

Blake Evans clearly remembers when he started changing his view on office gossip. It was a few years ago, when he worked at a publishing company, and a manager started coming to him to complain about someone more senior.

Evans thought that since he had a good relationship with the senior person, he should become the go-between, and try to fix the problems the woman described. Thing is, she was exaggerating just a bit.

So Evans spoke to the senior person, saying that he should try to communicate with the woman more, and explaining how the woman felt.

"I looked like I had a problem, where I did not," Evans says. Worse yet, in a staff meeting soon after, the senior manager said in front of 40 people, "Blake seems to think I have this issue...."

Evans saw the woman sinking in her chair.

Life at work after that was a bit uncomfortable, Evans says. But not for long. A short while later, he says, "I was part of a round of layoffs."

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